Socializing a dog is the practice of helping to get your dog comfortable in all different kinds of surroundings. Ideally, you want to introduce your dog to as much variety in life as possible during the critical socialization period of their first three months. However, many dog owners adopt older dogs that are past this period. What to do then? Don't worry! With a little patience and a lot of love, there are a number of ways to socialize your adult dog.
One of the most important areas to socialize your dog in is how to associate with other dogs. You want to get your pup comfortable around other dogs, but be patient, because it can take them awhile to get the hang of it.
First of all, leave the house—with some precautions and caveats. Dog socialization will go much better early on if both dogs are on neutral territory with plenty of space." Second, start by letting your dog simply observe other dogs without getting too close. Keeping a safe distance will help keep your dog more comfortable. You can do this by going to a dog park, but staying outside the fence, or by hanging out along a popular dog walking route. Stay as far away from the other dog as you need to. If your dog starts to react by lunging or barking, calmly walk the other way until your dog calms down.
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Create a positive association with other dogs by rewarding your dog with treats. If a dog catches your dog's attention, give your dog a treat. Your dog will eventually start to associate other dogs with positive experiences. Once your dog gets 100% comfortable seeing dogs from a distance, you can start to move closer. Go only as close as your dog remains calm.
Once your dog seems comfortable, you can start interacting with other dogs by taking parallel walks together. Sometimes referred to as decompression walks, or "sniffaris," these side-by-side walks allow dogs to engage in their environment more than with each other, while still enjoying the company of another canine. This is a much-preferred option to a dog park, which can be overwhelming for under-socialized dogs, and there's less room for interaction with an aggressive dog, which may set back your progress. Eventually, you'll be setting up playdates for your dog!
While we might think a dog would assume that all humans are alike, the opposite is true. Humans look, smell, and act differently from one another, and our dogs take notice. So while your dog may be great around those she sees often, she may react fearfully around strangers. Some dogs also have trouble with children, men, or otherwise unfamiliar people. You'll want to socialize your dog with all kinds of humans, to make sure they know how to keep their cool.
As with other dogs, try to make their associations with other humans positive. When a stranger comes over, give your dog treats as the stranger approaches, or you may want to have this person meet your dog outside first, before entering the home. One good technique is to give your friend some treats, and have them ignore the dog's behavior while tossing treats. That can help start to associate strangers with rewards.
Also, make sure that strange humans let your dog approach them, and insist that they do not reach over your dog's head to pet them, as most dogs approach new people and things to gather essential info, not to receive affection. If your pup wants to maintain a distance, or hide in another room, let them. Being calm and cool yourself and behaving like everything is normal helps your pup learn to react that way, too. It is ok to say that you have an unsocialized dog and you are teaching him, so please don't pet him.
Another technique that can help improve your dog behavior in social situations is to introduce the "Go Say Hi" game, which consists of teaching your dog to say hello to people they already know and trust. To get your dog and friends playing, trainer Cassie Pestana, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA has a few simple tips. "To teach your dog to 'go say hi,' have a trusted person who your dog knows and sees regularly encourage your dog to come over. Then, click or says yes when the dog interacts with the person, and when the dog returns to you, reward them with a treat," Pestana explains. "This keeps interactions short and sweet. It also gives the dog a choice. When we say 'go say hi' they can perform the known cue, or they can decide not to. And either choice is okay!"
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Group training classes teach your dog basic behaviors and tricks, but they also teach them confidence and give you, as their owner, options for how to calm them down. For example, when dogs are overstimulated, using the cue "Watch Me" taught in training classes can bring their focus back to you to calm them back down, and "Relax on a Mat" is another self-soothing skill dogs may learn in classes.
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Puppy socialization is easy because you know from the first time just what experiences your dog has had. Rescuing an adult or senior dog is an amazing experience for you and for the dog's life, but many dogs are already adults when we rescue them. In those cases, you have no control and often no knowledge of whether your dog had a negative experience in that early, crucial period. You'll probably have to make some observations before you can pinpoint exactly what kind of socialization your dog might need. Take note of the dog's body language in different settings. A tucked tail, flat ears, excessive lip licking, and shaking are all signs of a nervous or scared dog.
The best way to address any problems in your new rescue's socialization experiences is by starting small and keeping your interactions short. Allow them to get used to new sights and new situations with their new family members. Use the same principles we've outlined for any other dogs, and don't hesitate to call in a qualified dog trainer to help you.
It may take your dog a little time to build confidence. But if you stick to positive reinforcement and have patience, you'll soon have a socialized, well-adjusted dog who will love you all the more for taking the time to make their world happy and comfortable.